Hosts have won more competitive Test matches against more competitive teams
South Africa have won more competitive Test matches against more competitive teams than this Sri Lankan one – albeit that their fight was dimmed through injury and not fault of their own – but they will still savour this victory like it was one of the best ones.
“A Test win never comes easy. You’ve still got to earn it,” Quinton de Kock, their temporary Test captain, said. ” We fought hard with the bat. It was very difficult. It still feels good. Our bowlers came back really nicely in the second innings. They showed what proper Test cricket is all about.”
After the South African attack conceded the highest score by a Sri Lankan team in this country in the first innings, they rallied to dismiss Sri Lanka for 180 to secure an innings win. But this match was won by the batting line-up, who scored the most runs in an innings at SuperSport Park, and ended 15 months without an individual batsman scoring a hundred.
Former captain Faf du Plessis was the player to break the century drought and fell one run short of his first double-ton in what he called a statement innings to disprove the doubters. Du Plessis is the most experienced batsman in the team and is showing no signs of slowing down, instead setting as an example for the newcomers in the squad.
“It’s important to have senior guys in the team, guys who are experienced. We always talk about youngsters coming through but you need to find that balance between experience and youngsters,” de Kock said. “Faf came out and showed his leadership out there. He has been in a lot of pressure situations in his life and there was no better person to handle it.”
Similarly, du Plessis’ was one of the people de Kock turned to when he needed guidance in the field in his first red-ball match as captain.
Although de Kock has led South Africa in shorter formats, he has never even captained a first-class game, but found the experience of the longer format comfortable because he had plenty of support.
“It was a little bit easier. You have more time to think than in the other formats,” he said. “It helps that I have good leaders in my team. When I do need help, I can go to them for advice – the likes of Dean (Elgar), Rassie (van der Dussen), Temba (Bavuma), Faf – they are a big help out there when I need them.
“I’ve never captained a first-class game but I have been next to Faf most of my Test career and I have learnt a lot of stuff from them so I felt very much at home. It was pretty simple out there.”
De Kock did not make any obvious errors, though some may question aspects of his decision-making in the first innings such as giving debutant Lutho Sipamla the new ball. Sipamla conceded heavily in his first spell, with three overs costing 28, but improved as the innings went on and finished with 4 for 76 in the innings and six wickets in the match to show that South Africa’s fast-bowling depth is still there.
“It was just Test match debut and nerves. That’s all it came down to. We spoke to him and he came back really nicely. The way he bowled in the game is the way he has been bowling in the nets. That’s what we knew he could do,” de Kock said. “It was a great comeback from him with some great character shown. He’s an opening bowler on his debut Test, obviously there were going to be a bit of nerves but once he came back we saw what he can do.”
The same can be said for much of the South African team, who had not played Test cricket since January and have endured one of their toughest winters, shrouded in administrative chaos and cultural wars. When this Test began, South Africa’s biggest opposition was from sections of the public who either objected to them raising a fist to show support for Black Lives Matter or who felt they should rather have taken a knee. By the time the match ended, the race debate had quietened (for now) and the old adage that the results will give people something else to focus on for a while came to the fore.
So while South Africa have won more competitive Test matches than this, they had reason to celebrate the same. And they did.
“Go have a beer,” was Mark Boucher’s instruction to de Kock as they changed seats for the post-match press conference. About two hours after the final wicket fell the whole team was doing that, with a fines meeting well underway complete with applause and singing. A victory is a victory, and South Africa will most definitely enjoy this one.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent